“The vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless,” wrote Page Smith, a longtime professor of history at the University of California and an award-winning historian. “It does not result in any measurable benefit to anything or anybody. . . . It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale.”
The number of journal articles published has climbed from 13,000 50 years ago to 72,000 today, even as overall readership has declined. In his new book “Higher Education in America,” former Harvard president Derek Bok notes that 98 percent of articles published in the arts and humanities are never cited by another researcher. In social sciences, it is 75 percent. Even in the hard sciences, where 25 percent of articles are never cited, the average number of citations is between one and two.
“For someone just to write a paper that nobody is going to read — we can’t afford that anymore,” says Brit Kirwan, a former chancellor of the University of Maryland.
To accommodate all this research, universities have shifted much more of the teaching load to graduate students with little training or experience in teaching, or to part-time adjuncts who — at $3,000 per course — have become the academic equivalent of day laborers. These strategies have degraded the undergraduate experience and given cost-cutting a bad name.
A better approach would be to offer comparable pay and status to professors who spend most of their time teaching, reserving reduced teaching loads for professors whose research continues to have significance and impact. Some departments at some schools have embraced “differentiated teaching loads,” but most tenured faculty members resist and resent the idea that they need to continually defend the value of their research. And administrators are wary of doing anything that might diminish their universities’ research reputation.
(Some of this is, frankly, terrifying.)